Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Contextualizing the Think-Tankification of the Academy

St Petersburg Times:
A foundation bankrolled by Libertarian businessman Charles G. Koch has pledged $1.5 million for positions in Florida State University's economics department. In return, his representatives get to screen and sign off on any hires for a new program promoting "political economy and free enterprise." Traditionally, university donors have little official input into choosing the person who fills a chair they've funded. The power of university faculty and officials to choose professors without outside interference is considered a hallmark of academic freedom. Under the agreement with the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, however, faculty only retain the illusion of control.

Permit me a few scattered comments, most of which could be fully-fledged on their own if I felt an inclination to elaborate them, but which taken together in this more fragmentary state actually better reflect my reaction to this news item:

First, and I suppose most obviously: In the aftermath of the New Deal big business interests overcame their antipathy to and ineptitude at organized political activity (the priorities of profit-driven enterprise tend to be more parochial, proximate, opportunistic, competitive rather than co-operative) and began funding an archipelago of foundations and think-tanks spewing useful propaganda to counter the inconvenient results emerging out of universities. Now, in the present epoch of the pernicious corporatization and for-profit precarization and dumbing-down of the academy, Koch's purchase and control over university hiring and content begins (really, amplifies the long ongoing) re-writing of the academy itself in the image of the think-tanks that originated to combat the academy itself.

Second: Despite their incessant whining to the contrary, of course, it was never the left-wing bias in intellectuals they were combating in creating these alternate institutions (these intellectuals, after all, tend to come from privileged backgrounds or are engaging through their education in a process of upwardly-mobile professionalization, all of which tends to be forcefully prejudicial in the lives of even well-intentioned and progressive-identified people in countless ways, subtle and gross), but what has come jocularly to be known as Reality's "left-wing bias." And so these think-tanks busy themselves with the discounting of consensus scientific results whenever these support the case for regulations in the public interest that diminish profits, peddle faux-populist plutocratic "free-market" nonsense directly to lobbyists, elected representatives, and through mass-media outlets, engage in relentless marketing and promotional discourse selling or at any rate reconciling majorities to policies that benefit incumbent-elites, mobilizing and canalizing deep American currents of white-racism, sex-panic, anti-intellectualism, social distress in the service of voter disenfranchisement, mass-media distraction and disinformation, the maintenance of the plutocratic central economic planning and welfare for the rich programs misleadingly denominated "defense spending," and so on.

Third: That factual reality would have a left-wing bias, all joking aside, derives in a general sort of way from the converging tendencies of contingent universalization that happen to characterize both the publication and testing processes through which consensus science arrives at warranted beliefs as well as the democratization and consensualization processes through which ever more people arrive at ever more of a say in the public decisions that affect them through the provision of an ever more informed and nonduressed scene of consent coupled to ever more equitable access to ever better legitimated alternatives for the nonviolent resolution of disputes.

Fourth: Koch's move isn't unprecedented, actually, but reminds us of the reaction of the Robber Barons to the radical populism of massively best-selling author Henry George and the popular movements his writing inspired (in the company of the extraordinary early influence of Marx and organizing labor, as well as "free men, free labor, free land" Republicanism in post-Civil War America), that is to say, their creation and endowment of formal economics departments in universities across the United States, devoted to the creation and dissemination of laissez-faire sophisms as an official discourse. Of course, this backfired when in the context of the academy this orthodoxy was overturned by the Keynesian Revolution. Hayek and Friedman then began the long slog to re-impose that discredited still-nonsensical laissez-faire orthodoxy, a painful story summarized by the word "neoliberalism" (actually, that is a no less painful oversimplification of the story, but, after all, so was the use of the phrase "Keynesian Revolution" to summarize the no less complex convulsive narrative that preceded it). Anyway, Koch's infiltration is not only the latest episode of the tragic story of neoliberal re-imposition of laissez-faire orthodoxy as plutocratic official discourse but an episode that re-stages the inaugural scene through which that official discourse was first installed as such.

Fifth: When I speak of the dissemination of a phony congenial right-wing alternative reality through the hijacking of the academy, through the combating of the academy by way of the phony scholarship of the bought-and-paid-for pseudo-academy of the think-tank archipelago, and through the opportunistic mass-mediation of right-wing spin, denialism, know-nothingism, social discontent and cultural violence, it should be noted that this critique is not the same thing as nor even properly subsumed under the critique of the Culture Industry by Adorno and the critical theorists or of the Spectacle by Debord and the Situationists (or of Barthean Mythology before them). No, were the academy to regain its autonomy from the parochialism and corruption of profit-making and competitive-military imperatives, were media monopolies broken up and media co-operatives set up to reflect the diversity of experience and expression of communities as well as shared problems and general interests, still the tendencies to reconcile majorities to exploitation, to naturalize the bourgeois status quo, to distract people with pseudo-needs critiques by Adorno, Barthes, Debord and others would remain in force. Right-wing think-tanks, Fox News and right-wing hate-radio, and Movement Republican efforts to privatize, marginalize, commandeer University departments have far more specific historical contexts and effects, they are playing out at a level of concrete specificity which is not the level at which critiques of the fetishized commodity form, the Culture Industry, Benjaminian "Aura," the Situationist Spectacle, and other comparable key Marxist/post-marxist critiques are pitched and it is crucial to grasp and respond to these developments in their actual specificity. (This is not to deny the continued vitality of these more fundamental critiques in their proper precincts, of course.)  

Sixth: Like the return corporate-militarists get for campaign contributions to elected officials (sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars in such investments yield billions upon billions in subsidies and profitable deregulation at taxpayer expense), it really is flabbergasting to see how cheap it really can be for incumbent-elites to buy what amounts to a University Department in today's precarized academy with which to indoctrinate a generation of paid shills to champion feudalism in the midst of notional democracy.

Seventh: The organized futurology with which I tend to be preoccupied in this blog should be viewed as of a piece with the right-wing think-tank archipelago. Of course, the really bonkers extremities of superlative futurology that I tend to deride as a Robot Cult archipelago often have more in common with the organizations and subcultures associated with Scientology or Randian Objecitivsm, but sometimes even these extremes have their comparatively well-heeled well-funded facets (Oxford University's Future of Humanity Institute is an example of what I mean by comparatively well-heeled superlative futurology, Singularity University is an example of what I mean by comparatively well-funded superlative futurology). Of course, the still techno-fetishistic but more prevalent futurological corporate-militarist foundations and think-tanks peddling neoliberal "development" schemes, liberal eugenic "bioethics," "geo-engineering" diversions, network and robotic "security" measures and so on are the truly dangerous, truly anti-democratizing point of intersection between my anti-futurological arguments and my concerns with the Movement Republican anti-academic institutionalization of a phony congenial right-wing alternative reality.


jimf said...

No doubt you've heard about this as well:

"Donors paying colleges to make _Atlas Shrugged_ required reading"
Jeff Mills
May 6th, 2011

"Some 60 schools, including at least four campuses of the
University of North Carolina, began teaching Rand’s book
after getting the foundation money."

Well, why not. There are Bible colleges too, after all.

Impertinent Weasel said...

Uber-wealthy amoral scumbags will buy you if you're for sale.

One easy way to combat this is to not be for sale.

Koch is a scumbag, of course, but FSU seems rather villainous, too. Why don't they just auction off parts of their core curriculum? Think of the money they could get to spend on the football team.

Dale Carrico said...

One easy way to combat this is to not be for sale.

But of course, recognizing that non-negligible numbers of people will be corrupt or "for sale" isn't an answer but the point of departure for coming up with solutions. Declaring all parties "villainous" is even worse, it suggests disinterest in the very idea of coming up with political solutions. If sizable numbers of people weren't prone to error, deception, corruption, aggression, abuse then so-called "market solutions" would actually be adequate to social and political problems. Since all people are prone to these problems in some measure (even, sometimes especially, people who strive not to be) one needs norms, law, regulation, rights, incentives/architecture, separation of powers, subsidiarity, yoking taxation to representation, periodic free election, general education, redistributive welfare entitlements, firewalls against regulatory capture, and so on. As I said, the alternative to embracing this actually political point of departure is usually reactionary -- either some facile pre-political variation, say, a "spontaneism," like market fundamentalism or one of the left anarchisms, or it will amount to a straight up authoritarian moralism, some construal of "we" over "they," "kill all the scumbugs." Given your stated prejudices about the frailties of amoral uber-wealthy people and universities that prioritize football over humanities curriculum, I would no doubt find your construal of "we" as sympathetic as not, it sounds like we see things comparably. But of course politics is not morals, come what may. Universities, whatever their gaucheries and injustices, are one of the few remaining institutional spaces that resist American anti-intellectualism and (ever less and less) resist market imperatives. They are worth saving.